Should schools require teachers to join a labor union?


There are many reasons to oppose forcing teachers to join or pay dues to a labor union in order to keep their jobs, but I would like to focus on three. They are as follows: Forced unionization subverts the American political process; tramples on teachers' basic freedoms; and encourages divisive factions to form among public school board members and employees, parents, and administrators. Let's look at these arguments one at a time.

First, forced unionization allows unions to manipulate America's democratic political process. Every election cycle, the National Education Association (NEA) pours vast sums of money in dues coerced from teachers into efforts to influence the outcome of everything from local school board elections to races for federal offices. In an April 2000 article entitled "Government-Granted Coercive Power: How Big Labor Blocks the Freedom Agenda," Reed Larson, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense and Education Foundation, estimates the annual income from dues and fees for the NEA to be well over $1 billion, a large part of which goes to fund its political agenda.

Budget statistics reported in the February 2001 issue of MEA Voice, the newspaper of the NEA's state affiliate, the Michigan Education Association (MEA), show that $2,623,627 will be spent during 2000-01 to fund "activities related to our Political Action Committee . . . and congressional and legislative membership contact team." MEA Secretary-Treasurer Steven Cook states each union member "contributes" $20 annually for "lobbying activity in the Legislature advancing established MEA positions and resolutions as necessary and appropriate."

But there is evidence to suggest that the unions' lobbying power relies more on coercion than on popular support. In 1992, after Washington state voters passed an initiative requiring annual written approval for the political use of dues, the number of teachers willing to contribute to their union's political agenda fell from 45,000 to just 8,000. In Michigan, Public Act 117's requirement that unions get annual consent from workers prior to taking political action committee (PAC) payroll deductions lowered the MEA's PAC contributions from over $2.5 million to $1.9 million in 1998.

Another problem with forced union membership is that it unequivocally denies workers' freedoms. "Nearly 80 percent of Americans understand that it's just plain wrong to force someone to pay tribute to an unwanted union in order to get or keep a job," says Larson. "[But] few understand the far-reaching consequences of government-authorized forced unionism." Unbelievably, the law contributes to the stronghold of the labor union machines by granting them the power to not only collect billions of dollars every year through forced dues or fees, but also to terminate workers who refuse to contribute to the unions' political agenda.

Nevertheless, precisely what the MEA's agenda is remains unclear. Without a more definitive explanation of what its "congressional and legislative membership contact teams" are lobbying for or against, it is impossible for a public school teacher to determine whether the dues or fees which they are forced to pay are used to fund political positions with which they have ideological or moral objections.

No American citizen, union member or otherwise, should be forced to provide financial support for any organization without first being provided with a complete disclosure of the political ideology of that organization. To force professional educators to financially support the political "positions and resolutions" of the MEA without providing a full explanation of what those are is an insult. The MEA gets an "F" for its lack of accountability on this issue.

Finally, forced unionization results in the overpoliticization of our schools. Union politics often result in factions developing among public school board members and employees, parents, and administrators. And squabbling factions take their toll on our school system. How? By taking the emphasis off schools' main priority: education. As increasing amounts of time and resources are spent on political wrangling, the education of children takes a backseat to ongoing "turf wars" within and among school districts.

For example, all MEA building representatives should have a clear understanding of the role of their UniServ director. It's simply "overkill" to threaten to call in a union official to settle every interpersonal matter, whether or not it's related to contract administration, grievance procedures, or collective bargaining.

Neither should union officials be called upon by disgruntled staff to gain support for local building concerns between teachers, students, parents, and administrators. The threat of the union becomes a divisive tool when used in an attempt to gain a stronghold over local issues. Little wonder that the "politics of education" have become so distasteful within public schools, communities, and districts.

To deny professionals within the public educational system their right to not join labor unions, and to forcibly collect union membership dues and fees from those who oppose the ill-defined liberal political agendas of the union is an abuse of power. A public school teacher's freedom of choice from compulsory unionism should be protected rather than denied. Why? Labor unions cannot solve local concerns within American public schools and communities because labor unions represent their own interests and not those of children.

Esther Hall Gordon is a public school counselor and teacher. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, she has been a Michigan resident since 1981 and currently serves in the Bellevue Community School District.